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Can whale poo save marine ecosystems?

Can whale poo save marine ecosystems?

By Indi Hodgson-Johnston

Japan’s fleet has left port for another season of “scientific” research whaling in the Southern Ocean. Like last year, there is little that anyone can do to legally rescind Japan’s self-issued lethal research permit – a fact that has led to calls for more pragmatism and less confrontation in efforts to conserve whales.

Such avenues include greater collaboration between the International Whaling Commission (IWC) and other organisations, and a renewed emphasis on marine ecosystem research in the Southern Ocean.

How whale poo can help?

While Japan’s new whaling program dominated the IWC’s summit last month, a Chilean-sponsored resolution nicknamed the “whale poo” resolution was also quietly adopted at the meeting.

More formally known as the Draft Resolution on Cetaceans and Their Contribution to Ecosystem Functioning, the resolution notes the growing scientific evidence that whale faeces are a crucial source of micronutrients for plankton. The resolution will lead to a review of the ecological, environmental, social and economic aspects of whale defecation “as a matter of importance”, while the IWC’s Scientific Committee will review the research and identify any relevant knowledge gaps.

Why is this important?

Much of the Southern Ocean is described as high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC) waters. This means that the despite high concentrations of important nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate, the abundance of phytoplankton is very low.

Phytoplankton is the base of the marine food chain, and plays an important role in the global carbon cycle by removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through photosynthesis. However, the growth of phytoplankton in large HNLC regions of the Southern Ocean is limited by the availability of a key micronutrient: iron. In essence, the Southern Ocean is anaemic, and whale poo is the remedy.

Antarctic krill graze on phytoplankton, taking up the iron. The krill are then consumed by whales, which store some iron for their own use as an oxygen carrier in their blood (as in ours), but also expel large amounts of iron in their faeces. Conveniently, whale poo is liquid, and is released at the surface where it can act as a fertiliser to promote phytoplankton growth in the ocean’s sunlit top layers. 

More whales obviously make more whale poo, so it makes sense that more research and protection should be afforded to whales to ensure a healthier marine ecosystem. Scientists collect whale faeces from the surface of the water, making this a great way to do whale research without killing or harming them.

What about scientific whaling?

Some have suggested that the legal arguments against scientific whaling are well and truly exhausted, and that controlled commercial whaling could be the next step. Assuming that anti-whaling nations such as Australia would not follow such a pathway, and that hard law options are frustrated, other avenues to end lethal research are needed.

The whale poo resolution also aims to increase the IWC’s existing collaborations with various research organisations. This includes the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), of which Japan is a member. CCAMLR made headlines last month when it approved, by consensus, the world’s largest marine protected area in Antarctica’s Ross Sea.

While the CCAMLR Convention states that nothing in it shall derogate from the rights and obligations under the Whaling Convention, the role of whales are important to CCAMLR’s ecosystem approach to conserving marine life in the Southern Ocean. Japan’s current whaling program has the stated scientific objective of investigating “the structure and dynamics of the Antarctic marine ecosystem through building ecosystem models”. This aligns with both the research needed for CCAMLR’s ecosystem approach and the Australian Antarctic Division’s own research priorities. With an emphasis on research such as ecosystem modelling, collaborations that include and value Japan’s abundant non-lethal research in the area could help to most of the stated scientific objectives of Japan’s whaling program without harming whales.

Of course, many people contend that the main purpose of Japan’s whaling program is not scientific but this doesn’t change the fact that the same old battles at sea and in the courts have done little to prevent the taking of whales. The Whaling Convention cannot be changed, and nor can Japan’s interpretation of it. A different tack is clearly needed in both law and diplomacy.

The whale poo positive feedback loop

The whale poo positive feedback loop | Photo Courtesy: Indi Hodgson-Johnston/University of Tasmania

As the new marine protected area shows, Antarctica is a proven platform of peace. Increasing joint scientific research, and riding on the wave of the recent success in the Ross Sea, may provide fresh dialogue with which to resolve the stalemate. What we need is a newly respectful, non-combative discourse with Japan which, whaling aside, is a brilliant contributor to Antarctic science.

Joint Australian and Japanese research in other areas of Southern Ocean and Antarctic science has a long and friendly history. It is upon these longstanding and positive relationships that research addressing relevant objectives should be focused and funded.

Constructive intervention

While some, including the Australian Greens, have called for an Australian government vessel to intervene, Japan is whaling in waters that are recognised by most countries as the high seas.

Since the landmark 2014 International Court of Justice ruling, Japan no longer consents to that court’s jurisdiction on matters of living marine resources. And with little recognition of Australian jurisdiction in the area, and the risk of any intervention being illegal under laws of the sea, there is little hope for successful international legal action. Sending an Australian ship to intervene or collect evidence would therefore be largely futile.

By increasing knowledge and recognition of whales’ role in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, the resolution offers yet another avenue for developing norms of non-lethal whale research that are recognised as legitimate by all International Whaling Commission members.

On the other hand, researching marine ecosystems in the Southern Ocean is difficult and expensive. Instead of sending a customs vessel, Australia should divert its funds and attention to research that will boost our understanding of the Southern Ocean ecosystem and its role in the global carbon cycle. By increasing knowledge and recognition of whales’ role in the Southern Ocean ecosystem, the resolution offers yet another avenue for developing norms of non-lethal whale research that are recognised as legitimate by all International Whaling Commission members.Perhaps in one of Australia’s most vexed diplomatic issues with their close ally, whale poo could pave the way to more intensive and thoughtful scientific collaborations, and help deliver a peaceful end to Japanese whaling in the Southern Ocean.


Indi Hodgson-Johnston is Antarctic Law Researcher, PhD Candidate, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC at University of Tasmania.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Featured Image Credits: Visual Hunt

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